Wednesday, April 3, 2013

The Bible (History Channel TV Series) [2013]

Fr. Dennis (4 Stars)

IMDb listing

The Bible [2013].  Those who've followed my blog will know that I generally prefer reviewing films to television series.  Films are shorter thus require a smaller time commitment than television series.  I've also found that television series carry with them the anxiety of "what's coming next?"  Even a good episode or two could be completely undermined by episodes that follow ... However, there are always exceptions and every so often a series comes along that it make sense to review here.  And certainly, the History Channel's recent five-part miniseries The Bible [2013] is worthy of mention, indeed praise here.  For one, the series is over, so there's no more potential for "surprises."  Second, IMHO it's honestly excellent.

Any relatively non-exhaustive video series on the Bible will require editorial decisions to be made as to which Biblical stories/episodes to include and which to "pass-over" ;-).  Further, since the advent of modernity (over the last 150 years or so), there's been the additional challenge of how best to understand the Biblical texts with regards to today's far more scientific conceptions of historical accuracy.

Biblical Israel was, after all, a small people and place.  Its people's understanding of the events going on around them was necessarily limited by their "smallness" as well as limits of their education.  At the same time, anyone who's ever lived in a small town, village or neighborhood would know that events that certainly happened in the small town, village or neighborhood would pass-by without notice in "more important" centers of power/importance.  Our parish's annual "Annunciata Fest" is a big deal in our South East Side neighborhood in Chicago.  Neighboring Whiting, Indiana's annual "Pierogi Fest" is an even bigger deal.  But it is doubtful that Chicago Mayor Rahm Emmanuel or his staff know of (or care much about) either.  It may be useful to think of the Biblical King David as being basically "the mayor of (suburban) Lansing" or "the Alderman of Chicago's 10th Ward" (or someone equivalent in one's own locality) because it may help one to understand why it should not be surprising at all that even though King David was REALLY IMPORTANT to the Israelites (and hence to the whole Biblical tradition), the Egyptians and Assyrians (the regional superpowers of the time) would scantly know (or honestly not know) of him at all.   

For their part the series' producers admirably make clear at the outset that they have sought to be faithful to the Biblical stories/accounts presented even as they often hint (sometimes rather obviously) that one or another Bilbical account ought to be taken on a more symbolic level.

A classic example of the challenge of interpreting the Biblical texts even as the series presents them is given right at the beginning: The opening shot of the series is that of Noah's ark (with Noah's family and all those animals) rocking in the midst of a tempestuous and seemingly unending sea.  Then, inside the boat, we see/hear Noah recalling to his children the words of what becomes Genesis 1: "In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the eartha— and the earth was without form or shape, with darkness over the abyss and a mighty wind sweeping over the waters—  Then God said: Let there be light, and there was light.  God saw that the light was good. God then separated the light from the darkness. God called the light 'day,' and the darkness he called 'night.' Evening came, and morning followed—the first day." (Genesis 1:1-5).  Noah then continues, telling his children of the rest of the Order of creation, of humanity's origins in the Garden (Genesis 2), it's Fall (Genesis 3) and then ultimately even the necessity for God to destroy the world with the Flood (Genesis 6-8) "because there was too much Evil in the world ..." in order to start anew.

The more scientifically minded viewer of today would initially find that beginning to be almost utterly "unreal."  Yet IMHO that beginning is excellent because it recalls the fundamental symbolism of all of those stories, which seek to explain: Why are we here?  Are we here as a result of a "cosmic accident" (is the world/universe just a tumultuous storm of unending chaos?) or were we created (was the universe created) through the purposeful action of (a) God?  Why is there Evil in the world?  How did it get here?  And the rest of the Biblical Scriptures that follow the first seemingly unreal eleven chapters of Genesis become the Biblical story of God slowly bringing the world back to his Original plan that had been frustrated after the Fall...

The series then that follows, beginning with Abraham (Genesis, Chapter 12 ...) and continuing then through the whole arc of the Christian scriptures to Jesus' Resurrection/Ascension and the Acts of the first Apostles and even portraying John's writing of the Book of Revelation (which ends the Christian Biblical Scriptures) will probably be a joy for all for whom The Bible has been source of day-to-day reflection throughout the greater part of their lives.

And there is often some humor in this Series' presentation ;-).  For instance, Lot's wife (Episode 1, Genesis 19) is portrayed as something of a "high maintenance" figure ;-) .  Though she married into a shepherd's family (that of Abraham and his nephew Lot) she's presented in this tv series as something of a "Mesopotamian city girl" not wanting to leave her (more urban) Mesopotamia for "the hills of Canaan." And even when she and Lot had arrived there in the hill country of Canaan (joy ... ;-), she's portrayed as steering Lot to, at least, move their family to Sodom, which would have been the largest town/city in the area ;-).

I found the "Burning Bush" (Exodus 3) to be MUCH LARGER than I've ever imagined it.  Indeed, Moses couldn't have missed THAT "burning bush" because it was burning RIGHT OUTSIDE OF HIS TENT ;-).

Samson (and his mother) (Judges 13ff) were portrayed as "black," Samson with big long dreadlocks ;-), while Delilah and the Philistines were portrayed as white.  This makes for a fascinating interpretation of the story of Samson / Delilah as it would be true that the Israelites, Semites after all, would have been "darker skinned" than the Philistines who today would be associated with the "whiter/more Caucasian" Greek speaking "Sea Peoples" of the time, ... and the story of Samson/Delilah was fundamentally an early Biblical story about race...

David (Episode 2) is shown saying to himself the verses of what became the 23rd Psalm as he marches off to take on Goliath.  I found that very, very insightful because even the Bible credits most of the Psalms to David (remembered in the Bible as having been something of a musician, playing the harp (1 Sam 16:23), in addition to being a shepherd's son prior to becoming King).

And St. Paul is presented using the words of what became his famous passage on love in 1 Corinthians 13, to explain himself / mend fences with the Christians who he had been persecuting in the past: "Love is patient, love is kind, LOVE DOES NOT KEEP RECORD OF WRONG-DOING..." ;-) ;-).  One could imagine one of the early Christian believers hearing the future St. Paul trying to reconcile himself to them saying to himself: "Hey, that may be all well and nice, but you killed my cousin Steve..." (Acts 7:54-8:1) ;-)

In any case, I have to say that this series was a joy to watch and will certainly serve its purpose of "Bringing the Bible home" and into the hearts of millions viewers, both now, and I suspect for many years to come!  HONESTLY GOOD JOB AND GOD BLESS ALL WHO WORKED ON THIS PROJECT!

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